A product for a market
So what is the market for this product? Linden Lab has talked to potential big-shot customers, at least since the days of CSI:NY in SL, and found out that a lot of them needed far more control over their environment. They wanted to be free of network lag, glitches on the grid, or unpredictable rolling upgrades. It was not enough for them to get griefers abuse reported and temporarily banned; they wanted to get them entirely out of their spaces. And this meant being able to have their own grid to play with, and restrict access to it, without going through LL’s usual channels (tech support, concierges, Governance Team, and so on).
That number of potential clients is not small. 1,400 organisations are currently in Second Life, and many expressed the wish that they would much rather prefer to be on a neatly controlled grid without any influence from LL and their policies. A typical example are high school projects which need a close interaction between adults and teenagers in a controlled environment, which is quite hard to do in Second Life, as access to the Teen Grid by adults is seriously limited. But simply being “away from everything”, quite safe behind a corporate firewall, is something many companies feel to be fundamental; another typical example is setting up a voice conference making sure that nobody outside the corporate network is allowed to listen in, and share confidential documents (via Web pages from the intranet) with colleagues and partners without the need of worrying about security issues.
These are the most wanted applications for security-conscious corporations, but there are more. Suppose you want to sell a service to a group of restricted people, like, say, a specialised conference for a niche market. Doing it on the SL Grid is fine, but how do you know that the person paying to attend is actually using the avatar that paid for attending? How do you validate their identity? How do you have proof? LL might validate the avatar on your behalf, but they won’t reveal the data to you — and even if they did, how do you know they didn’t simply give the password to someone else? For such an application, Second Life Enterprise can be quite useful. One would set the box up on a co-location facility and run it from there, but only create avatars for the people you wish to allow access to it. Second Life Enterprise boxes are not subject to the Second Life Terms of Service, so you can set up whatever you wish as your own ToS, including any sort of validation technique that you might find useful. This is fundamental for many sorts of virtual world uses!
So, in effect, when you’re buying a SLE box, you’re not just buying “eight regions and a voice server”. Effectively you’re buying a neatly packaged virtual world environment all of your own, completely isolated from the rest of the world, and with full control over what goes inside it, without depending on Linden Lab for anything (except shipping the box to you!).
Now until recently, if you wished to run your own virtual world, you had few alternatives. You could buy an incredibly expensive solution from, say, Forterra, who sells licenses to their OLIVE engine (the one that originally powered There.com). You could host it on Multiverse (or, more recently, on Blue Mars), but you’d lose control over what happens to your content, since you wouldn’t get a box. You could use outdated technologies like ActiveWorlds or OpenCroquet/Cobalt/Qwak. Or you could develop your own solution. In all those cases, there is a huge obstacle to getting your own mini-virtual-world operational: deploying content in it.
The next step would be to hire a team of expert 3D modellers and programmers to develop all the content just for your virtual world. Every time you need to get something tweaked, you’d have to hire the experts again — who are paid in premium, and take hours and hours to change a 3D model. It’s just the way it is.
For someone used to the ease of assembling content in SL together, this is a harsh new reality to deal with. Many who are familiar with Second Life are reluctant to trade off its familiarity and ease for a product that runs inside your firewall, but is incredibly expensive to operate, maintain, and develop for.
Now recently a new alternative has popped up, which seemed to have the same advantages as Second Life, but none of the costs: OpenSimulator, which pretty much emulates SL, giving a company pretty much all what they need to run their own virtual world. Saving a few glitches here and there, and some overall limitations, OpenSim performs reasonably well, is good enough for regular use, and, of course, it doesn’t cost anything (except for the server and bandwidth to run it). Well, that’s not quite right, in fact: you need a system and network administrator that is very familiar with OpenSim to be able to maintain it for you, because, well, it’s alpha-grade software… which crashes a lot, and, yes, it takes a degree in Computer Science and a thorough understanding of the innards of OpenSim to get it up again. And the number of people with that kind of expertise are usually not available for hire. Even if a lot of OpenSim grid operators have popped up, many of which with excellent teams of technicians, their costs are not zero. In fact, if you add all the costs of keeping OpenSim happily purring along, you’ll quickly figure out that what you’re saving in tier costs will all go to pay for maintenance!
Linden Lab thus saw an opportunity and grabbed it: selling stand-alone Second Life versions with all support included, with a technology that is still better than OpenSim, but being provided by a company that has a decade of experience with that technology and, oh well, just happens to run a virtual world with it, very successfully, and for a profit, too!
So obviously, for a Fortune 500 company, the choice is clear: if they want to invest in virtual worlds for the corporate workplace, it means having full control over it, and being disconnected from the grid. And it means hiring a solution from a competent and knowledgeable supplier. Linden Lab is, for now, the best alternative for providing that kind of service.